As home video became more or less ubiquitous during the late 1980s and early 90s, the music industry, never known to pass up an opportunity for profit, scrambled to cash in on the trend, but never truly figured out what to do with the format. Record labels attempted just about everything, from ambitious, conceptual video albums and concert films, which proved time consuming and expensive to produce, to simple repackaging of the clips already airing on MTV, oftentimes juiced with a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, which didn’t always prove that enticing to consumers, especially given the relatively high price of VHS. They no doubt still made a bundle in the process, but eventually realized the video market would never generate the same revenue as their traditional music mediums, and since then haven’t put much effort into reissuing all that material, save for a few classics, leaving a lot of interesting odds and ends out of print and widely unavailable until some generous soul finally rips them to YouTube, as was the case with A Tribe Called Quest’s killer The Art of Moving Butts in Europe, which captures the seminal rap group at an incredible tipping point in their colorful career.
Filmed live during an overseas tour supporting fellow Native Tongues collective members the Jungle Brothers, The Art of Moving Butts in Europe finds the laid-back Queens, New York crew poised right on the cusp of making their mark, the release of their auspicious debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm still a few months off when they took the stage at Paris’ historic Élysée Montmartre theatre in early 1990. Barely in their 20s and with nothing but promise on the horizon, there’s an unbridled, fun-loving energy to the whole show from the very first moment DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad drops the needle and the MCs, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and even Jarobi, who departed soon after the record came out, emerge from the wings (sporting some funky monk robes, because why the hell not?). The setlist is tantalizing brief, but covers a nice selection of the classic, heady early cuts that established A Tribe Called Quest as clear frontrunners of the jazz-rap pack and are still influencing the development of conscious hip hop to this very day, such as “Push It Along”, “Description of a Fool” and, of course, the iconic “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”.
While simply getting to witness the one-two punch of Q-Tip and Phife swapping verses live is well worth the 35 minutes, and the epic, closing freestyle session alongside the Jungle Brothers and special guest Monie Love is just more icing on the cake, part of what makes the performance so exciting is everything that would follow it, since the group would spend the rest of the decade crafting some of the most celebrated records in rap history before parting ways in 1998. The strength of that discography, especially entries like 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1996’sBeats, Rhymes and Life, would soon make this early era seem almost quaint by comparison, but the seeds of it all are right there in The Art of Moving Butts in Europe, the Afrocentric positivity, the fearless style, the playfulness, etc. As evident as their potential was though, it’s still slightly amazing that the labels, Jive and RCA, were willing to throw money towards a home video for a young, untested group like A Tribe Called Quest, but that’s just the kind of magic that can happen when the industry gets its hands on a new technology it’s unsure how to best exploit.